LAWMEN, OUTLAWS & THE UNDEAD!
Enjoy this sneak peek from our latest release, THE DEAD RECKONING
Gunfire and the cries of women and children fill the morning air in a small, isolated Choctaw village.
Nestled in the forest near a creek that snakes through a wooded landscape and spills into the Atchafalaya River Basin, the little community's peaceful Sunday morning is shattered by violence and bloodshed.
Toppled and in disarray, baskets of food and shattered pottery lay scattered among the eleven straw huts that stand surrounded by a squat wall of logs and brush; a tiny barrier that does more to keep children and animals inside the village than it does to keep murderous outlaws and riff-raff out.
Twelve armed invaders trample the ground on horseback, rounding up citizens and shooting any Choctaw men who attempt to fight back. These invaders are a gang of gritty, grimy men of various color - white, black, brown, and red - who call themselves Granger's Dozen.
Smoke trails rise from several camp fires and mingle with the gun smoke that hangs heavily among the huts as villagers attempt to find cover and loved ones amid the chaos.
It takes less than ten minutes, then, it's all over. The village has fallen, taken by surprise this quiet morning as its citizens had been going about their early morning chores. Now, five of the village men lay dead, including two elders.
After fifteen minutes, there is no stray movement in the village except for the lone wolf that wonders, aimlessly, between the huts.
At the far end of the village, away from the creek, all of the villagers stand huddled, unarmed, scared, and surrounded by the Dozen on horseback.
Women weep softly and try their best to calm crying infants and toddlers as the stronger men - some bloodied and bruised by the Dozen - surround their families and the remaining elders, shielding them from the violent invaders.
One invader holsters his gun and climbs down from his saddle. Ruggedly handsome at forty-one years old, Seth Granger wears the finest clothing of any of the gang members: black trousers, tan button-down shirt, black vest, wide-brimmed leather hat. His gun rides low on his hip, in true gunslinger fashion, and the gold chain of a pocket watch glints in the morning sun as it dangles from his vest. The week's growth of blonde hair on his face accents his vest and highlights his tanned, chiseled features.
Seth rolls a cigarette as he casually approaches the mass of villagers.
"Mornin', Chief," he singles out the hulking, village leader, Chief Red Bear.
Standing at nearly seven feet tall, Red Bear's imposing presence has little effect on Seth and his gun-wielding entourage. The large Choctaw man stares at Seth, his piercing gaze burning a hole right through the cocksure outlaw.
Seth lights his cig and blows the smoke through his nostrils.
"We got a meeting scheduled, you and me," he looks up at Red Bear, squinting into the sun that is slowly rising behind the mountainous warrior. "You didn't forget, now, did ya?"
Red Bear remains silent.
"I know you're a little disturbed," Seth casually glances around at the mess he's managed to orchestrate. He points to the surrounding huts with his smoldering cig, "Looks like we interrupted your Sunday brunch or something. But, I did tell you I'd be back."
Seth steps aside and sweeps his arm invitingly toward Red Bear's hut. "Let's chat. The sooner we talk and I'm satisfied with the state of our relationship, the sooner y'all can throw them five dead sacks of shit into the ground and get back to whatever it is you heathens do on the Lord's day."
Red Bear turns to the crowd, silently reassuring them that everything will be fine. Then, he turns back to Seth and walks toward his hut.
Seth takes a drag from his cig and looks at the crowd. "Y'all talk amongst yourselves," he says as he blows the smoke at them. "I'll be right back."
"Keep 'em entertained, will ya, buddy?" Seth shoots a wink and an evil grin up at his second in command, Jonah, still mounted on his horse. He grabs a bottle of whiskey from Jonah's saddlebag and falls in behind Red Bear as Jonah smiles, revealing a gap that once held his left front tooth.
"Yassa, boss," Jonah's bass-filled voice bellows sarcastically, followed by a nasty laugh. Jonah is just as physically imposing as Chief Red Bear. As a former slave, the years spent in the fields of a southern plantation have built Jonah into a hulking monster of a man. He is chewing on a mouthful of tobacco and wears several days of facial growth. A red bandanna protects his bald head from the sun. His most striking feature, however, is the long scar that travels from his left brow, across his dead, gray left eye, and diagonally across his face to his right cheek.
The rest of the Dozen join Jonah in laughter.
Some members of the Dozen are scruffy and unshaven, while others don't even look like outlaws at all. They all wear an array of different styles of clothing from old, dirty Calvary trousers to muddied and torn ponchos.
However, Jonah is not the only black man in the gang; there is also Noah and his younger brother, Zack. Mounted next to them are six white men: Waylon, Jordan, Billy, Jimmy, Slim and, Seth's third in command, Chuck.
Aside from Jonah, the only other two members of the gang who truly stand out are Tequila, a notoriously wanted, bushy-bearded Mexican gunslinger, and a statuesque Navajo renegade simply known as "Big Red".
Jonah spits a slimy mass of chew, leaving a string of drool hanging from his chin as he smiles at the huddled mass of villagers.
SETH ENTERS Red Bear's hut and the humidity from within sucker punches him right in the face.
"Christ almighty," the square-jawed outlaw takes off his hat, revealing his sweat-drenched, shoulder-length blonde hair, and fans himself against the overwhelming heat with it. "How the hell do you people stand this shit?"
He takes a seat on the opposite side of the hut from the shirtless Chief.
"It's too damned hot to even finish this thing," he flicks his half-smoked cigarette to the dirt floor.
Red Bear sits, silently, as Seth takes a deep drink from the whiskey bottle and winces as the effects overtake him for a moment.
He notices the Chief staring at him.
"I am so sorry, Chief. Would you like some?"
Red Bear says nothing and, with his chin held high in defiance, he just stares at Seth. A bead of sweat runs down the red man's forehead and into his eye; he doesn't even flinch.
Seth shrugs, "Hell, more for me, then." He takes another big swallow and corks the bottle. "Okay, down to business," He lounges back against the inner wall of the hut. "We've been through this how many times? I've honestly lost count.
"The last time I remember seeing you," Seth fans himself with his hat, again. "I offered you and your village the protective services of my security company. I know you're trying to live as a man of peace, Red Bear, so if you ain't gonna do the fightin' for your people, someone's gotta do it. Right?"
Red Bear stares right through Seth.
"You gotta agree that y'all can't live out here with no protection," Seth grins, his dimples exaggerated by the shadows of the hut, as he uncorks the bottle. "There's all kinds of bad men around here.
"I think I've proven my point here today," he takes another swig of the whiskey. "Twelve of us against all y'all; hell, y'all never stood a chance."
He offers Red Bear the bottle, again, "You sure?"
The Chief is silent.
"Now, Red," Seth puts the bottle down and starts to roll another cig. "Can I call you 'Red'? I got a Navajo pal right outside I call 'Red' and he don't mind at all."
Red Bear doesn't respond.
"Good," Seth licks the length of the cigarette and seals it. He lets it dangle from his lips while he digs out a match.
"This kind of protection ain't cheap, Red. I mean, there's twelve of us to keep fed and armed. Then, there's the horses and such," he lights the cig and takes a drag. "However, I'm a fair businessman, after all, Red, so I'm prepared to offer y'all a substantial cut rate."
He blows the smoke toward Red Bear, "Whadaya say?"
The Chief's gaze never wavers, not even when another drop of sweat rolls into his eye. Then, finally, he breaks his silence:
"We have nothing to give you."
Seth sighs and glares at the Chief. He takes an extended drag from the cig before deeply exhaling the smoke in a large cloud that, nearly completely, hides his face from the Chief.
"Goddammit, Red," he leans forward through the cloud. "I was afraid you'd say that," he lounges back, again. "Hell, I think you and me coulda been pals, but you got a personality flaw called 'pride'.
"Do you know what the Good Book says about pride, Red?" Seth spits out a tiny bit of stray tobacco from his lips. "It says 'Pride cometh before the fall.' Do you know what that means?"
Red Bear is silent.
"Shit," Seth's brow furrows in frustration. "I guess you don't. That book wasn't meant for you ignorant heathens, anyhow.
"Well," Seth stares at the Chief for a few moments, then, he stands. "Your decision tells me this meetin's over." He brushes the dirt from his pants. "Me and Jonah talked it over and decided to make an example out of you fine folks," he smiles as if he's rewarding the Chief a grand prize.
"See, I got a reputation as shrewd business man," he takes another quick drag of the cig. "And I gotta protect it. So, as soon as we get the word out about a gang of banditos running around slaughtering small villages, well... the others will gladly pay up for our protection."
As the big Chief studies Seth's body language, watching for anything that will tell him what the outlaw's next move will be, his hand slowly begins to move behind him, gripping the bone handle of his hunting knife.
"And to make sure the other bastard natives take us seriously," Seth takes one last drag from his cig, savoring the flavor. "There ain't gonna be no survivors. No women. No children. And sure as hell, no men."
He exhales a cloud of smoke and, in a quick, fluid motion, Seth displays his smooth gunslinger skills as he flicks the cigarette away and draws his Colt with the same hand.
The mighty and agile Red Bear moves in a blur that matches the outlaw's speed of the quick draw, snapping his wrist out in a flash and sending the knife across the hut just as Seth's Colt clears its holster.
The bullet slams into the Chief's chest, knocking him backward, off his knees.
Red Bear's hunting knife sticks deep into the shoulder of Seth's gun-slinging arm, sending him reeling against the wall of the hut.
Seth's Colt hits the floor.
Screams erupt from the villagers outside at the sound of Seth's single gunshot.
"Shit!" Seth pulls the knife from his shoulder in a bloody spray.
He grabs up his pistol and spits at Red Bear.
Seth emerges from the hut, with the whiskey bottle in hand, into the waiting heat of the morning sun. Holsters his Colt. He glances at the villagers as he walks over to Jonah and motions for the big, black man to lean down in his saddle. When Jonah does, Seth snatches the knotted bandanna from his friend's bald head and leans close to his ear.
"Jonah," Seth's voice is even and smooth. "Why are they still alive?"
Jonah glances at the villagers. "I wasn't sho' if you..."
"Shh..." Seth cuts him off. He walks to his horse. "No survivors!"
He rips the blood soaked sleeve from his shirt and throws it on the ground.
Deafening gunfire erupts from Jonah and the rest of the Dozen. Villagers' screaming fills the air for several seconds as Seth pours whiskey over his bleeding shoulder. Wincing at the stinging pain, he wraps Jonah's bandanna around it to stop the bleeding before taking a couple of swigs from the bottle.
Seth turns to see the carnage as the last two sounds that echo away into the morning air are a baby crying followed by a single gunshot.
A few of the mounted men work to keep their horses under control after the last echoes of the ear-blistering blasts of gunfire are carried away by a quick and sudden morning breeze.
The breeze comes to an abrupt, chilling standstill as an eerie cloud of gun smoke hovers above the mass of dead villagers.
Seth packs the whiskey bottle into his saddlebag.
Jonah is reloading his double-barreled, Howdah pistol. "Dat otta put the fear of God in the rest of 'em. Hey Boys?!"
The men laugh.
Without warning, Red Bear rushes at Seth from his hut, his primal war cry leading the way. His tomahawk raised high, ready to strike with all of the rage reserved for the devil himself.
Seth spins on his heels.
Quickly unloads the remaining five bullets from his Colt .45 into the charging chief.
The pistol is back in its holster as the mighty, defiant warrior chief falls, headlong, into the dirt at Seth's feet.
"To hell with God," Seth stretches his neck to the left and feels his bones crack halfway down his spine. "They'd better fear me."